About 1,000 students – 700 from Pittsburgh Public Schools – have spent the past few months logging into their online classes and completeing their homework in churches, community centers, YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs.
They've been able to do so thanks to federal CARES Act funding distributed by the county's Department of Human Services to organizations that became "Learning Hubs". That federal funding will run out this month. Because so many families have relied on the service, the department will keep them open in January and take on the cost.
DHS will use its state child welfare dollars allocated to Children Youth and Families – or CYF. So far it has cost about $800,000 a month to operate around 60 hubs.
Amy Malen, the deputy director for the Office of Community Services at DHS, said the county needs additional support because the hubs are expensive to run. Malen said a few foundations have also expressed interest in helping to keep the hubs open, and she hopes that school districts will also pitch in.
“We receive a lot of CYF funding to run our entire child welfare program, as well as a ton of other prevention services. So, this is funding that has a lot of competing needs that it's leveraged for,” she said. “So it's hard to put a dollar amount to [what we need] because we're making tough choices about funding a lot of critical needs.”
Malen said her department is in regular contact with Pittsburgh Public Schools, though she said they are leaving the funding conversation to advocates. District officials did not return a request for comment.
Across the country, communities have operated similar Learning Hub models to give students a safe place to learn with reliable Wi-Fi and adult supervision. In Allegheny County, priority is given to low-income families, families experiencing homelessness and children of essential workers.
PPS students have learned remotely since schools closed statewide in March. The board voted in July to begin the school year remotely. A group of students wiho had multiple barriers to online learning returned in-person for a week last month before the district again closed all buildings. The current plan is to begin phasing students back into in-person learning in January under a hybrid model with alternating groups of students attending on different days.
A coalition of child welfare and learning advocates has asked the PPS school board to authorize the district provide up to $2 million to support the hubs.
The group, the Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative, formed in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Now around 70 organizations are working together to identify the needs and issues of families within the city school district and to identify and apply best practices.
“With all of the uncertainty and knowing that the school district has access to immediate dollars and can make adjustments kind of longer term and with the potential for a tax increase that they're going to be asking for, we felt that the need for the 700 children, many of whose families are essential workers, whether they work at Giant Eagle or they work at UPMC, they have a role to play in maintaining and keeping our economy going,” said James Fogarty the Executive Director of A+ Schools and a member of the coalition. “And so we want to make sure that those families are taken care of.”
Members of the coalition asked the school board during a public hearing on Monday to not only commit to funding the hubs that its students use but to also be transparent about reopening plans. 70% of PPS families in the fall had opted to have their students return in-person.
“We ask the district to provide the community with their guidelines and plans for a return to in-person instruction (e.g. at what level of transmission, percent positivity, etc.) will be adequate for both the district and its union members to safely return to the classroom knowing that data reflects the rate of transmission in classrooms to be especially low,” the group said in a press release.
Fogarty said the group had heard from individual school board members but--as of Monday night--had not heard back from district administration.
The board will vote on a nearly $670 million budget Wednesday during its legislative meeting. It can be streamed at pghschools.org.